Thursday, January 27, 2011

Bee Pollen In January!

It was warm and sunny on Sunday afternoon, so I went out back to check on the flowering hazelnut catkins. The catkins first appear on the trees in late November, tight like pinecones in mid-summer, and slowly lengthen through December and January, when they develop tiny bright magenta blooms and shed pollen everywhere. These blooms are a sign of spring in the back yard, so I was hunting. While I stood on the garden bed bridge, studying the tree, a bee landed on my arm. I looked at her twice—she had saddlebags full of pollen! It’s January, I thought—where is this coming from? Then I looked up into the hazelnut tree rising above the hive and watched the long catkins moving slightly in the breeze and saw bees dancing among the branches, culling pollen from the tree. Food in January—my hive will be around to pollinate the fruit trees this year.

The quince bush is blooming. The rhubarb is just unfurling a leaf. One primrose is budding. Snowdrops are open in the front yard. Spring is on the way.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Emergency Rations

What do we eat when there is nothing in the house and we are too tired to go out?

When I was living with my mother, our emergency food was frozen cheese ravioli with Ragu sauce from a jar (the plain variety, nothing fancy added), and hot Italian sausage. It was always around in the freezer and on the shelf, fast, and easy. You could even leave out the sausage if you wanted, as I did when I turned vegetarian, much to my mother’s dismay. There was something lovely about the way the pasta poofed up in the boiling water, how neatly there were divided into two bites, and how easy they were to chew. Exactly what we needed.

When I moved out of my mother’s house, I discovered ramen noodles, pretty gross on their own, but. If you add in frozen peas and corn and some finely diced carrot, you have a decent meal. For years, when I was eating alone, I turned to this soup when I could not wrap my brain around anything else. Later on, I discovered a fairly nasty, but delicious, substitute—steam a bunch of veggies, cook some noodles well, and throw them all on a bowl with a ton of grated cheddar and tamari. It was a guilty secret that I only shared with one person, camping in the White Mountains. She also loved it.

For a long while, my standard was roasted veg—usually potatoes—or a fancy potato chip, when I sliced the potato thinly, rather than in chunks, before I threw it in the oven. Lightly salted, I felt like I had eaten when I came home at nine o’clock at night, having taught adult GED classes after student teaching in the high school all day. My first year of teaching—tuna noodle casserole, truly a low point in my kitchen. Why would anyone eat tuna noodle casserole?!

Now, what do we eat? When I’m alone, I like Welsh Rabbit—cheese melted on bread—and steamed veggies, falling back on the old frozen pea/corn standards. If I feel fancy, I throw some tomato chutney under the bread. When Mark is around, we turn to Annie’s Mac and Cheese and a jar of home-canned green beans, maybe with a jar of homemade canned peaches for desert. Or I’ll grab a jar of roasted tomatoes from Sunbow last summer from the basement shelf, pick up an onion from the larder on the way up the stairs, and stretch it out with olives, or broccoli, and cheese, whatever is around. Once or twice a year, we eat French toast for dinner, with maple syrup. Oh yeah…

The goal has always been, fast, filling, and light on the dishes. It usually totally throws off all of my calculations—no left overs for lunch the next day, no local produce, lots of fat and salt and cheese—but that is, somehow the point. Especially, if, while digging though the freezer for the frozen peas, you find some ice cream that also needs to be eaten, way in the back corner….

Sunday, January 9, 2011


Composting is Hot in Corvallis right now. There are classes in How To Compost, delivered by Composting Gurus. They describe how to build the three bin system, complete with a cover, how to layer brown and green materials, what kitchen scraps can and cannot be thrown into the system—no fats, no meats, no oils, no cheeses….There are restaurants that are buying compostable plates and bowls and cutlery, probably because there is a business in town experimenting with these wares—they had a huge compost pile out at Sunbow this summer, experimenting with how long it would take for the stuff to break down. (the plates are gone in a few weeks, the cutlery sticks around for months.) You can even compost in your yard waste cans!

When I first met Mark, he was living in an apartment on Belmont street in Portland, furnished with a futon on the floor, a folding table, and an old couch left by a previous tenant. He was not planning on staying and wanted to travel light, but, while he was in Portland, he wanted to raise some red wiggler worms, which eat your food scraps. After consulting Worms Eat My Garbage, he bought a tub, drilled some holes in the bottom for drainage, ordered a pound of worms, and set up the bin in his kitchen. The bin quickly filled up with food scraps layered with newspaper, just like the book said. The worms migrated from food source to food source, clearly preferring easy to digest stuff like oatmeal scraps and damp bread to orange rinds and greens. After a few weeks, they laid egg sacks and a new generation began. It was pretty cool to watch. However, it was also the ideal conditions for fruit flies and I came over one day to find him vacuuming the flies out of the air in desperation. He moved soon after and set the bin on the back patio, where the worms continued to munch his table scraps for two more years.

Five years later, we bought our house and placed the compost ring back by the fence, near the garden and away from the house (in my last rental, it lived under the bedroom window…). That was fine until the rains began and I stepped into about six inches of ice cold water in the dark one evening. I moved it the next day. In the spring, we built a traditional, recommended compost bin, three sections, each about two and a half feet square, out of scrap wood and wire. The idea was, one section held the new material, the next was used to turn the scraps into to increase aerobic activity (no smell), and the last held finished mulch, waiting to be used. We laid slabs of the old sidewalk in front of it to keep down the mud. It worked. I could stand on the frame to use the compost turning tool, which made my neighbor rather nervous whenever he saw me from his driveway, especially as the wood began to rot and it was less stable. But, it was a pain. It was never quite big enough to heat up. The wires caught on the pitchfork. The chickens loved it, but they were constantly tossing the material two or three feet out of the bin. We had a resident rat.

This summer, the three bins finally collapsed. I was on top of one of them when they began to go, but survived. We considered our options… rebuilding larger bins? Those stackable frames like Paul has in his back yard? Purchase a black plastic container, so the rat couldn’t get in? “I like the hoop system, “ I suggested. ”It’s simple.“ We went to Robnett’s and bought enough wire to create a hoop three feet around along with some clips to hold it shut. Mark dumped all of the compost that was strewn around by the chickens, along with some cardboard and old rotten wood, into it. We added some bruised and wormy apples for moisture. Three days later, the pile was hot. A week later, Mark opened it up, moved it over to the open patch, and turned the reduced and steaming pile in. The chickens gathered around and ate the bugs left behind. Simple. Efficient. Neat. Cheap! What’s not to like. So that is our system right now. We do a little kitchen presort—carrot tops and old apples to the bunny, dead bread to the chicken coop, but most of the scraps are either thrown on the bare ground where the wire will be soon, so the chickens (as well as possum and probably rat) can eat them. Masses of veggie garden plants and cuttings are thrown into the bin, with scraps—including cheese—and whatever I rustle up from the side of the road. Flower garden trimmings are mulched in place (i.e. dropped into other garden bed where they came from…). It is simple. It works. And I don’t risk my neck balancing on rotting wood to turn it in the winter….

Monday, January 3, 2011

The Two Faces of Yule

Yule, which encompasses New Year’s Day, traditionally has two faces—there is the open to the world, celebrate, eat lots of food, see everyone you know face, which is the popular conception of the season—but there is also the inward-looking, coming out of darkness, evaluating the past year, asking for forgiveness aspect of the season, which our culture often forgets about, to our detriment. We spent the first week of Winter Break in the public realm, visiting with everyone, eating way too many baked goods (apple-cranberry pie, two rounds of stollen, whole wheat anise cookies, a plate of food from our neighbor who can bake!), not a day unscheduled. It was great! This week, we moved into the back side of the season, the private realm. After Amy left on Monday afternoon, we had nothing scheduled for the rest of the week (which is practically unheard of in my schedule book—just ask Mark). It’s been a week of long walks, staring into space, considering life and the pile of ninth grade debate papers I collected the week before Break (notice I did not say grading the papers…), working on a puzzle which I think is missing pieces, knitting a sweater, reading John Irving’s newest novel and various other books from a library cruise, and contemplating the disaster of a decade we just lived through. Today, I’m going to bring out the Territorial Seed Catalog and begin browsing tomatoes.